I love bicycling. Despite the traffic, and the potholes, and the sometimes rain, and the sometimes assholes who try to convince me that I should be riding on the sidewalk, not in the lane. I’m hooked on the speed, the flexibility, and the freedom. Not to mention the free parking.
I am not an aggressive driver, but I assert my rights on a bike, and sometimes even go beyond them. The city in which I live has lots of low traffic, 1 or 2 lane streets, and when no cars are coming bikes run red lights and stop signs. I’ve heard in Portland the bikers shamed each other out of this but out East we are still reveling in speed. My city is still coming out of an era of high street crime, and as a young white woman it’s easy to see muggers around every corner. Being on the bike won’t always keep me safe, but it feels good to know I could out-bike an assailant on foot. The last few times I’ve been out on foot by myself, either walking or running, I’ve gotten catcalled. I don’t know that I would call it harassment, the comments have not been lewd, though they have called attention to my body, and I’m expecting it so it’s a relief when it’s not worse, or just words and not actions. I know I’m lucky to experience so little of it; I don’t confront them. When I’m on foot, I’m on defense. When I’m on a bike, I’m on offense. I will yell at people, punch their cars, flip them off. I get angry. It feels great.
If you like bikes and feminism, you should be reading BikeyFace. Even if you don’t like bikes yet (I’m assuming if you don’t like feminism you wouldn’t be reading this). BikeyFace is brilliant big cartoons of the modern urban cyclist’s experience (weather, traffic, car doors, and the amazing feeling you get when you’re flying on your bike). I experience so many of the same things as the main character. One piece of hers that really stuck with me was “who is a cyclist?” Business owners identify people in bike clothes as cyclists, and assume that everyone else came in cars, so they advocate for more parking. In actuality, most cyclists wear regular clothes, and are more likely to be able to stop and shop because they don’t have to worry about finding parking. The Atlantic Cities published a study that shows that cyclists spend just as much at local businesses as drivers. The BikeyFace piece got me thinking, though, about who else is not popularly considered a “cyclist” – namely, low income people. Biking isn’t cheap, and it isn’t free of class signifiers. When you see someone, often a person of color, on a heavy mountain bike, with a bulky jacket and no lights, often on the sidewalk for some reason, do you subconsciously believe that that person is too poor to own a car? I am working on not doing so, because biking is awesome and there are lots of reasons to do it that have nothing to do with wealth. Also why are these people almost always men? Do low income women have encumbrances that don’t allow them to bike, or nowhere to bike to, or do they not feel the freedom and security on a bike that I do?
Biking and feminism have gone hand in hand for a long time. I’m reading “Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride” by Peter Zheutlin. Most people know that the desire to ride bicycles contributed to the adoption of bloomers and then pants for women, but the bicycle was explicitly seen as an engine of women’s liberation at the time.
Annie Londonderry was a Jewish working class mother of three who undertook a version of the popular self-promotional wager of the time: starting with nothing, she would make her way around the world by bike and return with $5,000, for which she would win $10,000. Through literary detective work, Zheutlin uncovers a story that is more one of fantastic fabrication than athletic endurance. Annie took a steamer from France to California, the long way around, while regaling news readers back home with firsthand accounts of tiger hunts in India, wars in China, and superhuman feats of cycling. One of the most impressive things about Annie Londonderry, however, was that she was so confident in the stories that she was selling that she didn’t care that they didn’t fit together. And she was certainly emblematic of the freedoms that women of the late 19th century were winning. There’s just something about human-powered, fast transportation that makes you feel like you can do anything.
One last thing: I rebuilt a bike that I found in bad shape in my last house share. Now I ride it every day. Zir name, according to zir former owner, is Jermajesty, and I love that I am able to continue the legacy of this gorgeous 1970’s classic bike. Here ze is, pre-fix-up:
Shout out to The Bike House in Petworth for teaching me, and everyone who walks in off the street, how to fix bikes, for free. There is no better feeling than zooming around town, wind in my hair, on a vehicle that I took from broken to functional, and can bring back to functional if something goes wrong. Fixing bikes would be a great challenge for getting kids, both male and female, into engineering, or even trades, because it’s a relatively simple machine with a big payoff — transportation freedom.